Since reviews of Giulini's Bruckner routinely begin with a discussion of his spacious tempos, I'll begin there too. There's no denying that if one categorized performances of the Bruckner Eighth Symphony by tempos alone, middle-of-the-roaders like Bohm and Wand would find themselves boxed between speed merchants like Horenstein, Tennstedt, and Kegel at one extreme and Giulini at the other (with the even slower Celibidache his only close companion).
But happily, things are never that simple. Though they all share unusually forward-moving tempos, the Bruckner Eighths of Horenstein, Tennstedt, and Kegel couldn't be more different; and the same is true of Bohm and Wand, Celibidache and Giulini. In fact, each of these important readings is unique, truly one of a kind.
So the question really should be, what characteristics --other than tempo -- make Giulini's interpretation different from any and all others? The answer has much to do with his early and formative experience in the opera house. Though he eventually abandoned conducting operas (at least in the theater), Giulini always approached the orchestral works he performed with a finely tuned sense of dramatic structure. For him the Bruckner Eighth is a Wagnerian-sized opera without words in four separate acts, a single dramatic arc that carries us from the panic and terror of the opening allegro to the heaven-storming transcendence of the finale. No conductor has done a more heart-wrenching job of actualizing the existential dread, the spiritual crisis that's at the very heart of this, Bruckner's greatest symphony.
There are now three Giulini Bruckner Eighths to choose from: a DG studio version from 1985 with the Vienna Philharmonic, a live performance with the Philharmonia Orchestra from 1983 and released on BBC Legends (with the added bonus of a Dvorak Symphony No. 8 and Rossini's Semiramide Overture), and this new one from Testament that captures a concert with the Berlin Philharmonic from 1985.
Though this represents an embarrassment of riches, for me the Berlin recording is definitely the one to have. It is true enough that in all three versions Giulini's interpretation is largely the same, in effect the performances are very different. The Vienna is, not surprisingly, the best sounding, and also the most spacious. The Viennese players bring a strong sense of tradition to the music, and project a sense of grandeur and timelessness. The Philharmonia version is earthier, more urgent; but the sound, though very transparent, suffers from compression, and one senses the musicians stretched to their limits.
The Berlin outdoes them both. In fact, I can't say I've ever heard a greater orchestral performance (that is, of anything). Liberated from the tightened reins of Karajan's micromanaging, the Philharmonic plays with a rapture and an intensity that recall its glory days with Furtwangler. As a conductor, Giulini was ever the generous, open-hearted leader, always inviting, encouraging an orchestra's full participation in the creative experience. Here they give him everything they've got: the sense of effortless power and expressive detail that only the greatest orchestras can provide. Not surprisingly, the brass covers itself in glory throughout. The final coda is achieved with a thunderous fervor that's truly rending.
The sound might not be as good as the studio-made Vienna performance, but it's much better than the BBC Legends release: spacious, transparent, with a harrowingly realistic bass that does full justice to the variety and richness of the Philharmonic's dark colors. For fans of either Bruckner or Giulini, this performance is self-recommending. However, I know that some of you may already own one or both of those earlier releases (as I do) and might therefore be hesitant to take the plunge here (even though this two CD set is being offered at a specially reduced price). I say unto you: fear not, your sense of buyer's regret won't survive the first big climax. And after that, you'll be transported to a place that neither of those earlier performances can take you. Which is to say, don't worry about the expense: you're buying something that money just can't buy.